Radiohead's fourth album, Kid A, is the strangest rock & roll success story of the new century, a set of cryptic, digitally twisted pop songs that snuck through the heavy boy-band and rap-metal traffic to debut at Number One in Billboard. And it happened despite the fact that the British band – singer-lyricist Thom Yorke, guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway – made no videos, released no single and played only three North American shows to promote the record. In his only major American interview of the year, Yorke sat on a bench in New York's Central Park and, in the brisk autumn twilight, explained why Kid A is so bizarre – and he is not.
How does it feel to have the weirdest Number One album of the year?
I'm actually the last person in the band to ask about it. I've shut those particular cupboards, the ones concerning the industry. Whereas I used to be really into it. That was the ambitious side of me, wanting to get ours. It's good to know the devil you're dealing with.
I just hope it means a lot of other people get the chance to do things their way. The industry is very set in its ways, and those ways are no help and totally uncreative. When we finished the Ok Computer tour, I got obsessed with amazingly talented people being destroyed by the industry, and I started questioning whether I even wanted to stay involved, whether it was going to do the same thing to me.
There isn't a straight rock beat anywhere on Kid A. Do you still think of Radiohead as a rock band?
There's a lot of things about rock that are still valid, almost shamanic things: delving into drugs for creative reasons, not lifestyle reasons; music as a lifetime commitment. If that's what someone means by rock, great. But I find it difficult to think of the path we've chosen as "rock music". Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again.
Ed O'Brien's original idea for the new album was a back-to-the-roots record – which you crushed pretty quickly.
Yup [laughs]. There's plenty of other people doing back-to-your-roots records, so we didn't need to be doing that. To be honest, yes, we could have done that. And three weeks down the line, it would have been a fucking nightmare. We would have hated it.
Did you cajole the others into going your way? Or did you just say "No, I can't do that, end of story"?
I probably did the latter. I'm not trying to pick a fight with anybody. But if it's not there, there ain't no point in trying to make me go and find it.
But as the band's singer and lyricist, don't you have the ultimate veto anyway?
Not necessarily. When we put records together, it's not like that. If I have a direction, fine. If I don't have a direction, it's someone else's thing. When Jonny did the strings on "How to Disappear Completely," that was absolutely his thing. Nigel [co-producer Godrich] helped him, and that was it. The rest of us were not involved in that at all.
The mistake is to assume we had that level of a plot. Unfortunately, we had no plot. We had fifty things on a blackboard, and we just kept throwing them out and adding more. We kept driving everybody crazy: "Let's start this one today." "But we got these fifty other fucking things to work on." It frees you up in a way. You don't know what's going to happen when you go into the studio every day.
You went through a period of writer's block at the start of making Kid A. Did you feel you had nothing to say? Or did you have too much to say and couldn't spit it out?
A block is both of those things. The worst thing was thinking, "Is this it? Is this all I've got?" But there will be times when you won't be able to deal with things, won't be able to get them out. These things go in cycles. There's bad times and good times. Things never really die – they just go around.
What was the first thing you wrote for the album after you broke that block?
"Everything In Its Right Place." I bought a piano for my house, a proper nice one – a baby grand. And that was the first thing I wrote on it. And I'm such a shit piano player. I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that what keeps him going as a strong songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he's using. So everything's a novelty. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get into computers and synths, because I didn't understand how the fuck they worked. I had no idea what ADSR meant.
What does it mean?
Attack, decay, sustain, release [smiles proudly]. You should see Jonny's gear, man. He's got all this patch-chord gear. He gets the most amazing sounds. And he's only read the first twenty pages of the manual. He's got another 200 to go. He keeps going, "You know, it can do more than this!".
Is Kid A really about cloning humans?
That was entirely my fault [laughs]. Early on, Stanley Donwood, who does our artwork, and I started doing this thing, Test Specimen, a cartoon about giving birth to a monster, the Frankenstein thing. For example, the bear logo – that is the test specimen, the first mutant. The idea was loosely based on stuff we were reading about genetically modified food. We got obsessed with the idea of mutation entering the DNA of the human species. One episode was about these teddy bears that mutate and start eating children.
It was this running joke, which wasn't really funny. But in our usual way, it addressed a lot of our paranoias and anxieties. "Kid A" was just a name flying around – it was a name of one of the sequencers.
You recorded enough material during the Kid A sessions for two albums. How would you describe the music that is not on Kid A?
It goes off in two ways. One is like very broken machinery. The other is really fat and dark. I played one of the songs to Björk – he said, name-dropping – and she said it sounded like I'd just seen something really frightening, then gone and written about it. It's sort of bearing witness to things.
We've all listened to these other songs, getting an idea of what we have. It could be an EPs thing; maybe it will be a better record than the one we've just done. It's impossible for us to judge. In the same way, I can't judge what Kid A is like. I can't listen to it – I don't want to listen to it. When you're in the mastering suite and you hear it for the first time, with all the gaps between songs, that's it. After that, I went home with the CD and showed it to [Yorke's girlfriend] Rachel, and said, "This is Kid A, and I don't want to hear it anymore." I want to do the same thing with the next one. It's fantastic when you finish something that's hanging around your neck.
If you guys are so comfortable with Napster and bootlegs, why did you go to such lengths to keep Kid A under wraps before release? There were no advance copies, and reviewers had to listen to it in very controlled circumstances.
In retrospect, I think that was really stupid. We finished the record three or four months before we could play it for anybody. We had to go on tour, so we locked it away. It would have been wrong if it ended up on the Net months beforehand.
It seemed like the only way to do things. But I was quite upset that it happened that way, because it didn't feel right.
The ironic thing was that journalists could not get a copy for review, but anyone could download live versions of the new songs from Napster.
I thought that was brilliant. When the [European summer] tour started, the first show was on the Net the day after. If the major labels had their shit together about the Internet . . . They've been sticking their heads in the sand over the new technology ever since they discovered they could resell everyone their old LPs on CD. They reaped some pretty bad karma doing that, and now they're paying the consequences. Unfortunately, what that means is they're picking on things like Napster, which is just a bunch of people bootlegging among themselves.
You wrote "How to Disappear Completely" about the way you felt after playing a huge outdoor show in Dublin. Is there anything about being in a successful rock band – about being known and loved – that you do like?
Yeah! I like a lot of it. I like talking to people about music, about our music. If it didn't make me happy, I wouldn't do it anymore. I just don't want to suffer many fools very often. I don't have the fucking time.
That song is about the whole period of time that Ok Computer was happening. We did the Glastonbury Festival and this thing in Ireland. Something snapped in me. I just said, "That's it. I can't take it anymore." And more than a year later, we were still on the road. I hadn't had time to address things. The lyrics came from something Michael Stipe said to me. I rang him and said, "I cannot cope with this." And he said, "Pull the shutters down and keep saying, 'I'm not here, this is not happening.'"
What was the best thing that happened to you this year, besides going to Number One?
Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. I have a house by the sea, and I spent three weeks there this summer. I just went swimming every day. It was the best feeling in the whole wide world, being turned around by the ocean.
What was the oddest thing you bought this year?
I bought a book about standing stones in southern England.
Like the ones at Stonehenge?
Yeah. There's a lot of these stones around my way. I got quite heavy into it. I've also been reading this book about Egyptian pyramids and temples and their relation to the stars – which is very unlike me, to read about that sort of thing. But I've been getting heavily into ancient cultures.
What is the think you would most like to see change in the coming year?
I think the music corporations should stop fucking with the way people listen to music, stop trying to fit everything into a fucking box, and start taking some fucking risks.
That's a lot of "fucking."
Yeah. You can edit those out if you like. I get into trouble with my mum.
This story is from the December 14th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.